Book Review: Climbing Piano’s Mount Everest

Alan Rusbridger, editor, The Guardian Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons, The Guardian

Alan Rusbridger, editor, The Guardian Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons, The Guardian

I love the piano.

I mean, I really love the piano.

The fact that I’ve taken it up late in life and have no ambitions about it — and I mean absolutely no ambitions about it — is part of the reason why I love it.

My elderly mother is constantly telling me how much she regrets that she and my father didn’t give me piano lessons when I was a child.  “You could have been someone really great, a concert pianist,” she tells me.

Her short term memory is gone, so she repeats this refrain often. Each time she says it, I tell her that I have no regrets about the fact that I’m taking up piano now, and not earlier.

I love it.


It makes me happy.


And if there’s one small thing I’ve learned in life, it’s that the best time to be happy is always — you guessed it — Now.

My newfound love of the piano is without a doubt the reason why I downloaded, Play It Again, an Amateur Against the Impossible onto my Kindle. It’s the first-person story of British journalist Alan Rusbridger’s attempt to learn Chopin’s Ballade No 1 in G Minor.

The Ballade, as Mr Rusbridger calls it, is something of a Mount Everest among pianists. Playing it is usually considered the province of the best of the best, the professionals, and not the amateurs among us.

While Mr Rusbridger is an accomplished and enthusiastic musician, he is not by any stretch a professional pianist.  His day job is at the British newspaper, The Guardian, where he’s the editor. That’s a big job at any time, but the year that he chose to take on the Ballade was also the year of Wikileaks and the story about a powerful British newspaper bugging cell phones to get stories. These stories were both broken by The Guardian, and neither of them was received easily by the world at large.

Mr Rusbridger had to be determined to find 20 minutes each morning for piano practice. While that night be enough time for a child to learn this week’s lesson, it is not in the universe of the amount of time a pianist needs to devote to master something like the Ballade.

He took lessons from three extraordinary teachers and interviewed experts in related fields during the course of his journey with the Ballade. He also engaged in lots of social music playing with friends.

After a year and a half, he successfully performed the Ballade for a group of friends, which, for him, was mission accomplished.

The important thing for me is that he never, at any time, worked toward a professional performance. He had a goal, but the journey was just as important as the final outcome.

This is what piano is to me. It’s about the music, yes, but in a personal, entirely selfish way. Of all the things I do, the piano stands alone among as the one thing that I do entirely for myself. I am an amateur and I have a determination to never be anything else.

The joy of it all is that it’s not about being a professional musician. It’s not about being a musician at all. It is, simply, about the pleasure, the incredible, totally absorbing and absolutely healing to the depths, pleasure of me and the piano and the music that is in both of us.

I identified with this book on many levels. Mr Rusbridger works in a public profession that is competitive to the point of combativeness. His tools are words that change people’s lives. He is constantly on call, always under the gun, never really “off” from his job.

Ask any elected official and they’ll tell you that this sounds a lot like what they do.

I always wanted to play the piano, but I never did. It was a vague longing with no direction. It might have stayed like that except a friend from my church told me she had a friend who wanted “to get rid of” a piano. I jumped at the chance to get it, and the rest is a love story.

It turns out that the piano and I were star-crossed lovers, or at least we were on my part. I sit down at the piano and the world falls away. When I first touched those keys, it was if a long-slumbering part of my brain woke up, kicked it’s heels and started doing fist pumps.

Mr Rusbridger talks a lot about his problems remembering the score. I have a somewhat analogous disability. I cannot, for the life of me remember notes. After I’ve plunked through a new piece of music the first time,  and I look back at it the next day, I remember the sound. I hear the note when I look at it on paper.

I’ve had a hard time describing this to my teacher, but here’s what it’s like. I look at a note on the page for D, and instead of thinking D, I hear the note itself. It’s weird and it makes what people call method books almost painful to me.

I pulled myself out of the method books and into real music within a couple of months. I’ve been working on one advanced piece of music for almost 8 months now, slowly learning my way through it. First, the fingering, then the hands, then, ever so slowly, the hands together, and then, finally, the pedals. The whole time, I’m searching for the music in the notes, the story it’s telling me.

It’s a slow process, but it is so much fun. Let me repeat that: It. Is. Fun.

If you take a good piece of music apart, you will see quite quickly how it moves from one key to the next, how the chords come apart and combine, how the sounds repeat but do it differently, how they build and then fall, how it speaks. That’s the fun of it; finding the story in the music, the voice in it that uses these sounds to create a world of its own.

Mr Rusbridger studied music as a child, went through the (to me) mechanical process of graded learning. He’s modest about his abilities, but it is just modesty. I gather from reading the book that he is actually a very good amateur pianist. Which is to say that he may actually be a better pianist than the homogenized and rather dead predictability of much professional pianism I’ve heard in recordings.

We are veering toward a computer-like perfection in classical music, which is to say, we are taking the life out of it. Mr Rusbridger discusses this in some depth in his book. He theorizes that it’s the power of our recording studios to eliminate the flaws in performance that leads to this.

We are doing to music what Photoshop is doing to the human form: Replacing it with a plasticized shape that is a caricature of the beautifully flawed reality of life.

Real music, played by real people has flaws. But it also has voice and power and tells stories that reach into people and bring their deep inner selves to the surface. People love music. They love to listen to it, to dance to it, to just let it wash over them and lift them up and away.

The value of amateurs such as Mr Rusbridger, and, yes, even me, is that we keep music alive. We lift it out of the recording studio and the sterility of computer programs that eliminate flaws and place it squarely back into the human.

Mr Rusbridger makes an excellent case for this, and I will take it one step further. Without amateurs, music dies. This is true partly because the audiences for professionals is made up of amateurs. It is also true because the flaws, fun and good times of amateur playing is where the life of music lives. Music is of the human soul, not the human-made equipment that wipes performances clean of flaws and packages them to sell.

My family was a musical family. I never thought about this, took it for granted, until I got my hands on that first piano. We would get together and after a big meal with fried chicken, baked beans, potato salad, homemade ice cream and watermelon, everyone would get out their fiddles and guitars.

Nobody could read music. They just played. The standard line when someone asked “Do you know …” was “Hum it.” If you could hum it, they could play it. First one, then the other would take it up, and they’d be off.

That’s the ultimate amateurism; one step removed from playing a bottle and keeping time on a washboard with a spoon. It was also, I realize now, beautiful.

Not the music so much, although if I remember correctly, it wasn’t all that bad. The beauty was in the family, the love, the life of it. Music is a human invention.

Music is emotion, language, math, symbolism, and our driving need for beauty all rolled up into a profound self-expression. It links us, one to another on a profound and visceral level.

Without music, would people die? Would we become like neglected children who fail to thrive? Would our eyes hollow out into deep pits of despair and our bodies grow frail and and wraithlike if we lost our ability to sing?

I think we would. I really think we would.

Because music is not about perfection or performance or making money. Music is, and always has been, our soul’s voice with wings.


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It’s not the Notes. It’s the Music.


Copyright: Rebecca Hamilton. All Rights Reserved

A reader at an on-line piano site that I’ve begun to frequent asked where to find sheet music for a composition called “Storm at Sea.”

This composition is required playing for an annual exam given to piano students.

Writing Public Catholic has sharpened my Google skills, so I went out on the internet and found links to the sheet music for this guy. Then, just out of curiosity, I went to YouTube and looked up various performances of it. What I found was a startling exposition of why playing piano is not about the notes. It’s about the music.

I found several young people who were obviously playing this piece as part of their exam. I won’t use them as examples. What I’ll do instead is show you two highly competent versions of this simple little piece.

The first is by Kathleen Theisen.

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Does that interpretation make you want to run out and get a copy of the sheet music so you can play this yourself?

It doesn’t me. There’s nothing wrong with this, not a single note out of place. But it sounds like a music exercise, or at least it does to me. There’s nothing interesting or intriguing about it.

Now, here is the same music, played (complete with toy whale) by the man who wrote the piece; Steve Nehrenberg.

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It’s still a simple piece of music, but, all of a sudden, it is music. This is something it would be fun to play.

The difference is story, which is to say the difference is music. Notes are what you practice at the beginning of learning a piece of music for the purpose of getting to the point that you can actually play it as music. So long as you’re just playing notes, no matter how accurately, you are not making music.

I need to apologize to Kathleen Theisen. She has many videos on YouTube, which demonstrate her enormous musical artistry. It’s just that in this particular piece of music, and in my uneducated opinion, Mr Nehrenberg brings the music to the notes. He tells the story.

The reason I love playing the piano is that search for the story in the notes. I’m working right now and have been since last June, on a piece of music that was far above my abilities when I began it. It has been a matter of learning the music note by note, measure by measure, of playing it slowly one hand at time until my mind knows where the notes fall, then putting the hands together, and then slowly beginning to tell the story in those notes.

After six months, I am still piecing it together and working toward the day when I can, as Mr Nehrenberg did with this piece, bring the music to the notes of the whole piece. In the meantime, I’ve learned an enormous amount of music theory, just by studying the underlying structure of this piece.

Listen to the ways that these two people play this simple music. Do you hear a third way you would like to play the notes, another, slightly different, story you would make them tell?

It’s not the notes. It’s the music.

And the music is in you.


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The Precious

I did do one thing during my week off.

It revolved around The Precious.

Copyright: Rebecca Hamilton. All Rights Reserved.

Copyright: Rebecca Hamilton. All Rights Reserved.

I’ve written before about my new-found love of playing the piano. A friend from my church gave me her old piano, a 1984 Wurlitzer, last August. That piano opened a whole new world for me. I started taking lessons, and found that I have a surprising facility for music. More important, I discovered that I love making music.

The minute I sit down at the piano, the world drops away and it’s just me and the sounds I can draw out of those keys. I didn’t even know where middle C was when I began. But I’ve moved on rather quickly since then. I’m not sure why, but it’s like I’m learning a language that in some odd way I already know.

I don’t practice. I just play it. Learning a new piece of music is fascinating to me, like working a puzzle.

As grateful as I was to have the Wurlitzer — and I was very grateful indeed — I was dissatisfied with it almost from the first day. I don’t know the technical language to describe it, but there was no there, there in the tone. I could change the way I touched the keys and change what it did, but nothing I could do could pull real music out of it.

I don’t know how to explain it except to say that it was limited in what it would do and the limitations wouldn’t allow me to make the sounds I could hear. I heard music in my mind that I knew I could not ever get out of this piano.

I spent hours, trolling on-line web-sites, mooning like a lovestruck teenager over the pianos I saw there. I even went so far as to contact one of them and see if he’d take my Wurlitzer in trade. Shipping costs made that a bad deal for him, which I understood.

In fact, shipping costs made buying from him a bad deal for me, as well. It costs almost $1000 to ship a piano from the East coast to Oklahoma. That’s a lot of coin to stack on top of the cost of the piano itself.

During a lunch break at work a few weeks ago, I decided to check out a local piano dealer called Larsen Music. I wanted to check the prices on a new piano to get an idea of how much a used one should cost. I did not have any plans to buy a piano when I went into that store.

But the very nice salesmen told me I could play any piano that I wanted. That’s a little bit like a car salesman offering a test drive. There is nothing like the smooth specialness of a new car with that intoxicating new car smell. If they can get you in that baby, you’re halfway to sold by the car itself.

It was the same with these pianos. I tried three of them that were in my general price range. They all cost more than I planned to spend. A lot more. But each and every one of them put my Wurlitzer in the dirt. They were all wonderful, but as soon as I touched the keys on The Precious, it was swoon time. If buttered honey was a sound, it would be the sound of this piano. If the colors of a sunset were music, they would sound this way.

It had the voice that speaks the language of the kind of music I want to play.

However, it cost a lot of money.

And I don’t have a lot of money.

Fortunately, there was wiggle room in the price. It turns out that buying a piano really is a lot like buying a car. The piano, like the car, sells itself. Then, the process of working out the deal on the piano involves — like buying a car — a bit of bargaining.

I traded in the Wurlitzer and got quite a lot taken off the asking price in addition to that. The bottom line was that I could afford it. I went home with prices and photos for three pianos. But, the one I wanted was the Kawai. I called back the next day and asked for a couple of more discounts, then agreed to buy over the phone.

The reason? I found the piano I wanted at a price I could afford. I had also learned the answer to the question I had when I walked into the store: New pianos are a better deal than used ones, especially when you factor in the expense of shipping. I had been looking at thirty-year-old pianos that, with shipping, would have cost me about a thousand dollars less than I paid for this new one. That’s not a good deal.

My new piano has a 10-year warranty, a complimentary first tuning and Larsen’s offers a 100% trade-in if someday in the future I decide to buy a grand piano.

I paid for it when I bought it, but asked the store to keep it for me until session was over because I knew I wouldn’t have time to touch it, and that if it was sitting in my house and I couldn’t play it, I might stroke out. It rained here last week, which delayed delivery a day.

But last Wednesday, the delivery guys brought The Precious.

That may be part of why I didn’t get much done last week. All I know is that they weren’t out of the drive when I started playing it, and I didn’t stop until my hands got sore.

I love this piano. It is (in case you’re interested) a new Kawai K3. I recommend Larsen’s Music to any Okie who’s looking for a piano of their own. They are good people to do business with. I think the salesman enjoyed my pleasure in the piano almost as much as he enjoyed the sale. He told me, “I saw your face when you played the Kawai. I knew that was the one.”

I stopped my lessons for the past couple of months because there was no time. I’m starting again this Thursday and I’ve got so many things I want my teacher to go over with me, I don’t know if we can fit it into an hour.

I’ll never be a great musician. But I am already a fulfilled and happy one. I am going to ask around my church and see if I can find enough interested musicians of any level of competence to put together some sort of funky Southside Papist band. That would be great fun.

The moral of this story is simple: If there’s something you want to do, do it. Don’t let wiser heads tell you that you’re too old or that it’s impractical or wasteful silliness. Above all, don’t listen when they tell you to grow up. “Grow up,” used that way, is just a synonym for “stop living.”

That advice isn’t wise. It’s an exhortation to waste life. The greatest wisdom about life is to know it and live it as the gift that it is.

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Music: My Piano Hates Rain


It took me a while to figure this out, and now that I have, I’m still trying to figure it out.

It begins with the simple facts that I love the sound of rain and we’re now in the fall rainy season here in Okieland.

What that means in practical terms is that I often open the back door and shove up a couple of windows so I can hear the rain. I’ve found that I especially love the sound of the rain while I play the piano. It’s a kind of unexpected bliss.

But here’s the weirdo catch.

I noticed a couple of weeks ago that my piano had gone out of tune. It has migrated a tiny bit since I had it tuned when I first got it, but this was so gecky that I would hit a key and then hit it again and go bleh. Then, I’d decide that, even though I don’t have a piano tuning in my budget until January, I am going to call and get the blamed thing tuned because I. Cannot. Stand. This. Ugly.

The next day, it would be back in tune.

This happened repeatedly.

I began to think my piano had a poltergeist. I decided that maybe, instead of a piano turner, it needed a priest.

Then, I began to see a not-so-subtle correlation. On rainy days, when I open the door and windows and turn off the central heat and air, the piano goes out of tune. On dry days, it goes back in tune.

It’s raining today, but, in deference to my piano, I’ve left the doors shut, the windows down and the central stuff on. So far, it’s in tune.

My piano does not have a poltergeist.

It does, however, appear to have arthritis.

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